What does it mean for societies to be bioregionally self-sufficient?
Fostering economic relocalisation, distributed production and participatory governance
The redesign of our cities and societies so that they are bioregionally self-sufficient is an idea whose time has truly come due to both mounting external pressures as well as novel socio-material capacities to create thriving communities. A growing movement towards bioregionalism calls for a renewed emphasis on living in reciprocity with our local places, their ecosystems and bio-geo-physical realities (Thackara 2019; Wahl 2020a). The emergence of networks of distributed human systems that are situated within their bioregional ecological systems would be a fundamental shift to the way our societies are presently organised. Deregulated extractivist models of development that currently underpin a majority of modern societies globally are continuing to fuel the rampant externalisation of social and environmental costs — some of the most urgent symptoms of which include the climate crisis, the sixth mass extinction and unprecedented global wealth inequality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped to highlight the ineffectiveness and wastefulness of global production networks that prioritise efficiency over resilience. There has been greater impetus during this pandemic than in any other recent time for communities to provide for many of their own needs through mutual aid and local production supply chains. It is likely that many societies will be tempted to revert to the status quo of deregulated global supply chains in the name of kickstarting our economies when the pandemic is behind us, however we would be wise to harness this call to resilience to deeply address the aforementioned systemic threats (Lemos 2020). Rather than championing the ideals of isolationism and protectionism, relocalised economies would be better served by an underpinning approach of cosmopolitan localism (Manzini & M’Rithaa 2016; Wahl 2020b). Advocates of cosmopolitan localism call for the formation of nested networks of mutually supportive communities, with local production and governance complemented by global open-source knowledge and skill sharing. Experiments in both distributed production and participatory governance are developing rapidly and showcase their potential as vital catalysts in facilitating bioregionalism (Mocca 2019).
The following map shows the 89 bioregions of the Australian continent, which have been classified based on climate, geomorphology, landform, lithology and characteristic flora and fauna:
It is important to note that this drive to live in harmony with bioregions is not a new phenomenon and that Aboriginal nations across the Australian continent (like Indigenous communities around the world) have been underpinned by this for tens of thousands of years, with great understanding of the dynamics of their local ecosystems. Aboriginal knowledge systems, laws and social practices have emerged from reciprocal relationships with Country and an ethos of custodianship. On the contrary, industrial, neo-colonial 21st century cities and lifestyles are very much characterised by a homogenous dislocation from place and an illusory disconnection with their ecological support systems. In moving towards bioregionalism there is much to learn from First Nations people, but any and all engagement must help to empower Indigenous communities rather than continue a tradition of transactional appropriation.
In the following discussion I will explore the emerging move towards bioregional societies through the lenses of economic relocalisation, distributed production and participatory governance.
My own attraction to the concept of bioregionally self-sufficient societies is informed by my previous explorations of closed loop cycles in permaculture design as well as employing life cycle analysis in industrial design. Underlying these approaches is a systemic view of material flows, human activity and ecological impact which aims to prevent the externalisation of costs as well as to identify opportunities for circularity. The movement for economic relocalisation also captures this need to internalise social and environmental costs as a response to prevailing neoliberal patterns of production. Over the last few decades and through the abundance of cheap fossil fuels, economies have become increasingly divorced from the specific resource bases of local bioregions (Girardet 2010; Read 2015). Regenerative systems designer Daniel Christian Wahl points out that corporations “ship raw materials to the other side of the world for processing, simply because labour costs and environmental protection standards [are] low there” (Wahl 2019, para. 6).
Is it possible to regulate our economies to uphold environmental protection and the value of labour whilst still having a predominantly global trade system? The short answer is partially, but mostly no. Regulating our economies to actually account for the social and environmental costs of global supply chains would likely mean that a large proportion of these patterns of production are unviable in their current incarnation (Andersson 2021). Techno-centric imaginations of the future might envision container ships powered by green hydrogen and an abundance of Fairtrade biomaterials; however, they do not question the underlying culture of consumerism nor the religion of economic growth at all costs. Advocates for economic relocalisation do not argue that our societies need to be completely bioregionally self-sufficient and that global trade needs to be completely abolished; rather the call for action is to mobilise the emergence of resilient communities that can provide for their basic needs through localised, circular supply chains (Hopkins 2008; Norberg-Hodge 2019). There needs to be an ongoing discussion to help define what types of global trade are viable and valuable — whilst centring on economies that are largely defined by local production coupled with global knowledge networks (Read 2015). Shortening supply chains and relocalising the production of essential food, water, energy and goods can help to shift us away from our throwaway culture and move towards conscious living within the limits of our one planet — Spaceship Earth (Bleischwitz 2017).
It is much easier to see the impact on other beings and to honour their sovereignty in a localised economy; with deep reconnection to others, and to life itself. Economic relocalisation helps to catalyse the growing movement for pluralist, distributed communities that strive to meet social foundations and ecological limits. This means that plural, vernacular design imaginations will once again be valued rather than the imposition of homogenous, modernist dreams upon so-called ‘developing’ communities (Escobar 2018).
The table below outlines two co-evolving socio-material dynamics that are helping to catalyse relocalised economies — technical and cultural:
The capacity for distributed production coupled with a globally connected network of knowledge sharing turns economic relocalisation into a paradigm-shifting proposition. With the internet affording the existence of countless online communities for skill sharing and open-source design, the development of local circular economies for food, water, energy and materials is not stifled for innovation as it might have been previously. The Fab City Global Initiative taps into this evolution of distributed production by fashioning a model for self-sufficient neighbourhood building (Diez 2017). Their test case in the neighbourhood of Poblenou in Barcelona shows what it would look like to embody a DIDO (data-in, data-out) model rather than the prevailing PITO (product-in, trash-out) model (Chardonnet 2019). “Fab City focuses on the movement of data, use of local material supply chains and digital fabrication” (Armstrong et al. 2019, p. 13). In some cases, this has cut out the production-consumption supply chain altogether, with the consumer even having the ability to collaborate on an open-source design before the product is fabricated in their local makerspace. “For communities to locally produce material goods efficiently, physical products should follow open-source principles similar to the ones applied to the digital commons” (Lemos 2020, p. 172). Figure 2 below shows the Fab City model for a distributed production ecosystem (Fab City Global Initiative 2016, p. 5):
As depicted above, the various nested scales of distributed production work together to facilitate the development of local, circular economies and global collaboration on innovative methods. This model offers great potential to explore the creation of biomaterials as fostered by the conditions of each distinct bioregion and their cities (Wahl 2020b). Biomaterial production along with thriving repair networks are important complements to makerspaces and distributed production networks in helping to relocalise our economies. Cultivating cultures of repair as a vital part of local material recirculation can offset industrial material recycling processes that are energy intensive and actually enable a continuation of our throwaway culture. The challenge is for makerspaces and designers to embrace and develop practices that subvert the prevailing stigma of unfashionableness associated with repair and refurbishment (Crosby & Stein, 2020). Repair needs to become synonymous with design and consumption as an expression of the need to act as custodians of the materials and resources we use. The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre in Sydney is a fantastic example of the growing appreciation of upcycling practices as is seen not only through their individual customers but also their numerous partner organisations and local councils who are looking to challenge consumer culture and ‘close their loops’. The emergence of these practices and networks is a step towards systems of bioregional production and consumption, however their economic viability is hindered by poor policy. How could governance and regulatory mechanisms be more conducive to the emergence of relocalised economies such as these, and enable active engagement with principles of ecological regeneration and social equity?
Governance plays a key role in catalysing bioregionally self-sufficient societies as it has the potential to create conditions in which regenerative economies can flourish. Legislation and regulations along with the formation of strategic visions and roadmaps can help to foster our collective actions towards shared goals. There is no one-size-fits-all model or blueprint for what a relocalised economy looks like in any given bioregion (Liaros 2019). Rather, the opportunity lies in forming a deeper understanding of our local bioregions in conjunction with the dynamics of meeting our human needs.
“Shifting local and regional economies towards increased local production for local consumption will only be achieved in complex multi-stakeholder integration processes with people taking a whole-systems design perspective in a collaborative effort to create regional abundance. Such a transition will require skill, persistence and patience, yet it promises diverse and vibrant regional economies, resilient and thriving communities, and the protection and regeneration of regional bio-cultural diversity” (Wahl 2019, para. 3).
This ongoing process of realigning our activities to the qualities of our local place requires the input of diverse perspectives from across traditional disciplinary silos — hence the necessity for participatory multi-stakeholder governance. Broadly speaking, approaches such as collaborative design and citizens assemblies can offer forums in which bioregional governance can emerge. I would like to explore two specific organisations and their processes — the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) GreenPrints model and the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) City Portraits methodology. Both of these initiatives have distinct intentions and tools with which they attempt to catalyse action for our societies to meet ecological limits.
The AELA GreenPrints approach intends to move society to an ecocentric underpinning and defines bioregionalism as a core objective in actively engaging with ecological limits. Lawyer and national convenor of AELA Michelle Maloney describes GreenPrints as an alternative to an “anthropocentric, ‘top down’, pro-growth governance system [instead building] ecological governance approaches that are uniquely suitable for the Australian continent” (Maloney 2020, p. 314). Laws and governance designed through this approach could help to redirect human activity towards relocalised economies that respect and contribute towards the regenerative capacity of the ecological world (AELA 2016). GreenPrints attempts to facilitate this by building community literacy of planetary boundaries and ecological limits, analysing bioregional human activity as well as developing subsequent transition strategies and scenarios. In developing pathways to regenerative economies, the approach draws from numerous established methods including but not limited to Ecological Footprint analysis, One Planet Living tools and Doughnut Economics. The approach has a clear intent to encourage practices of reduced production and consumption in line with Earth’s regenerative capacity as well as a centring of Aboriginal laws and knowledge systems in the development of bioregional governance. The guiding framework of the eight GreenPrints steps outlines the intent of each part of this rich community-owned process, with scenario development towards the end leading to recommendations for law reform (Maloney 2020). It would be valuable to more tangibly understand how the various steps manifest in context through the GreenPrints framework, which the GreenPrints Handbook in development might go some way to elicit.
The DEAL City Portraits methodology takes a different approach which is not focused solely on bioregional economies but also on the global implications of local human activity. The City Portraits tools and methods do not explicitly argue for economic relocalisation or earth-centred cultures but rather they strive to account for impacts across four domains: local-social, local-ecological, global-social and global-ecological. The two local domains place an emphasis on the creation of thriving and regenerative local economies which is very much aligned with a move towards bioregional economies. The two complementary global domains seek to address the impacts of global supply chains and the externalisation of costs associated with prevailing cultures of overconsumption. These aspects are crucial mechanisms to help create accountable global relations especially when considering that our economies might not be relocalised in their entirety. In saying this, a clearer articulation of the global impacts of our supply chains, for example, ecological devastation through raw material extraction or oppressive labour conditions, could itself drive a move towards bioregional economic relocalisation. The City Portraits approach is broad and necessitates a diverse multi-stakeholder involvement to help ground the process in place. Varied outcomes can develop from this methodology including socio-material interventions and the formation of circular networks along with proposals for reformed governance.
Towards (a multiscalar) bioregionalism
As seen through the three lenses discussed above there are countless dynamics at play that could help shape the nature of self-sufficiency in cities. The movements to create circular, regenerative societies act synergistically despite their approaches varying from those that are socio-material focused to those that are driven by political change-making. Figure 3 below attempts to capture the interplay of the three lenses in moving towards bioregionally self-sufficient societies.
In working towards bioregionalism as depicted in Figure 3 the goal is to deeply redesign our socio-material systems and governance processes in order to embody a reciprocity with our Earth. As discussed earlier it is likely unfeasible and undesirable to produce everything that our societies need at the one scale — that of the bioregion (Lemos 2020). Alternatively, a multiscalar approach could provide a sound foundation upon which to create thriving place-based communities that engage with ecological limits (White 2021). What can and cannot be produced at each of the household, community, city and bioregional scales? What (if any) global supply chains should exist as long as all social and environmental costs are accounted for? How do societies govern their economies at these different scales? The questions posed are not theoretical but rather, they are framings for ongoing research and development that will help to define the balance and dynamics between the different scales. A cosmopolitan localist approach toward bioregionalism would catalyse a globally connected ‘coming home to place’ (Wahl 2020a). In the words of transition designer and social ecologist Gideon Kossoff, “we do not have to choose between our immediate, geographically proximate community and the larger community of humanity. Indeed, we cannot afford to make this choice: the fate of humanity and planetary ecosystems are inextricably intertwined at the local and global level” (2019, p. 52).
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